Thursday, November 24, 2011

British Art Deco Exhibition at the RIBA

The RIBA's current exhibition, 'Putting on the Glitz: the Golden Years of Art Deco Architecture in Britain', is wonderful, a third floor foyer of photographs (along with some related periodicals, telegrams and sketches) that you can spend fifteen minutes or a month on, an exhibition rich and rewarding to those interested in architecture, photography or London's past.

The RIBA can seem intimidating when seen from a passing bus, the weight of the institution suggestive of a private members' club where everybody knows everybody and knows who doesn't belong, but as you step through the doorway it reveals itself as a friendly place, accessible and welcoming, filled with light, the kind of place where you could go to drink coffee, answer your emails and read. This exhibition makes a great pretext for a visit, particularly as the building, designed by George Wornum and built in 1934, is reproduced in the show. There's also an excellent photograph displayed showing Bainbridge Copnall working on the sculpture of Architectural Aspiration that appears on the Portland Place facade, this softly lit encounter between the artist himself and the larger allegorical figure he details accentuating intimate notes in the stone relief.

The exhibition is not large, but photographs are accompanied by information on the buildings depicted, which are organised by type. There are interiors and facades, details and shots that capture the spirit of the period as much as the building itself. Many of the photos' subjects have been demolished while some, such as the Odeon in Leicester Square and Battersea Pumping Station, are now London landmarks. Some photos, such as that of the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, show buildings that have since been altered; the diamond shaped window that is visible on the present building makes much more sense when seen in its original context.

This exhibition has been carefully researched, and so can please both those looking for an introduction to the period and those in search of buildings that don't appear in general works on British Art Deco. I was particularly intrigued by the train stations of James Robb Scott; Charles Holden's work for the underground is well-catalogued, but this railway architect from the same period is far from familiar, despite working on the facade of Waterloo Station, the only major London terminus built in the early twentieth century. One of his stations is in Surbiton, a suburb in the South West of London that I hadn't heard of, home to a number of interesting art deco buildings.

Cinemas were being built constantly during this period, and the wall dedicated to picture palaces does not disappoint. A number of these photographs are by John Maltby, who in 1935 secured a commission to document each new Odeon as it opened; by 1939 he had photographed 250 different cinemas in the United Kingdom. Of those shown in the RIBA show, my favourite was Joseph Hill's Odeon in Surbiton; I was angered to read that it had been demolished as recently as 1999.

Alongside the architectural merit of these buildings, the images in the RIBA both hint at and record stories of English life. I liked particularly the story of 'Tilly Losch's Bathroom,' an art deco room by Paul Nash given to Tilly Losch, a dancer, by her husband, Edward James, a collector of surrealist art, which hinted at the mingling of those from different disciplines: architecture, modern art and dancing join together in a luxurious bathroom. I also liked reading the telegrams exchanged as Oliver Hill was working on the Midland Hotel at Morecambe, recently restored; in one, he is advised that "the question of whether we have face towels in colours has got to be further considered as [Arthur Hill, of LMS Hotel Services, is] not satisfied that the clientele we are likely to get at Morecambe will appreciate too much of this kind of idea".

Similarly, the glimpses behind closed doors are intriguing. A number of London's fanciest hotels were built, renovated or expanded during this period, and a private dinner at the Savoy or a stay at Claridge's is out of reach for most, but a wall at the RIBA allows your eye to wander down corridors at a number of such places without arousing the suspicions of hotel porters. Similarly, I've seen the central courtyard at Dolphin Square and pondered what it would be like to live in the high-density apartment block, but I didn't know about the art deco bar that lies, or lay, somewhere behind the brown bricks.

I can't show sample images from the exhibition as the RIBA charges steep fees for reproduction, but this exhibition is free, centrally located and on until Saturday the 26th of November (open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday). It leaves you with a list of buildings you want to visit and intriguing information about those you already know. It leaves you, too, wistful for buildings that are no longer standing, but perhaps this wistfulness is what is needed to draw attention to London's often overlooked art deco heritage.

For those who can't make it to the exhibition, you can see some of the photographs online.